Thou shall not murder.
Thou shall not commit adultery.
Thou shall not steal.
Thou shall not devastate thy body with wheat-based ingredients.
Honor thy rice flour and thy corn chips, that thy days may be long upon the land which thy organic farmer is giving thee.
I’m really susceptible to food-based guilt. I think maybe it comes from growing up not skinny in late 20th-century America. Lately, it’s the gluten that’s getting me down, partly because I just don’t know what to believe.
On one hand, I’m experiencing a whole new realm of food-based guilt stemming from the bringing of home-cooked food containing gluten to gatherings which include Gluten-Free (GF) People. I feel like I’m bringing KFC extra-crispy to obese heart patients.
Every other package at the grocery store now says “Gluten Free!” Whole freezer cases are now devoted to wheat-free waffles and six-dollar loaves of brown rice bread the size of my digital camera. My husband listens to a lot of alternative health podcasts and I’ve heard the burgeoning anti-gluten movement for myself.
It used to be that Celiac disease was a little-known disorder involving the breakdown of the digestive tract due to a severe allergy to an elastic protein in wheat and similar grains known as gluten. It was so rare that an early episode of House, MD – king of bizarre, utterly far-fetched diseases you would never ever guess – featured a woman suffering from Celiac disease. Nowadays, given symptoms from nausea to headaches and sore joints to rashes, any American five-year-old could diagnose gluten intolerance.
On the podcasts, I learned that the traditional understanding of gluten allergies is dead wrong. Gluten’s insidious effect is not limited to the digestive tracts of an unlucky few. Apparently gluten is rotting everyone’s bodies from the inside out, accountable for everything from diarrhea to dementia. In fact, the decline of human health as a whole began thousands of years ago, when we stopped gnawing hunted bones and foraged berries for sustenance, and began planting fields of wheat. One harrowing internet narrative involved a GF nun who continued to have devastating symptoms, until a wise and committed alternative practitioner discovered that she was still taking the Holy Eucharist- Jesus may be your BF, but he’s not GF. Wheat destroys your gut, clouds your mind and rapidly makes you obese, and our whole modern society is going to hell in a bread-basket until we lay off the spaghetti.
On the other hand, I’m confused, because the grocery-store packaging that is not Gluten Free proclaims that it’s Whole Wheat and therefore excellent for my health. Several years ago, I patted myself on the back for switching from white bread to whole wheat or whole grain bread, thinking that it made me a healthier individual. Almost every health manual – particularly those espousing vegetarian or vegan diets – hinges on whole grains. The specialty market sells seitan, a wheat-based meat substitute that is essentially gluten, as a wonderfully healthy option. What is the truth?
The whole thing gives me even more trouble, because I have, in fact, heard at least one alternative health practitioner pronounce online that Interstitial Cystitis (IC), a little-known bladder disease, is none other than a gluten allergy, and that IC patients will cure themselves the moment they lay off the bread.
Being an IC sufferer myself, I asked my urology specialist this week if she knew of any studies that linked gluten intolerance to IC. To her extensive knowledge, no studies of this type have ever been done, let alone proved that IC is a wheat allergy. She says that some of her other patients have gone GF with mixed results. One improved a lot. Others reported fewer headaches but the same pelvic pain. Others saw no difference. But when you have an incurable medical condition that produces epic pain on a daily basis, you tend to grasp at straws. It makes me wonder if quitting the gluten is what I should do.
And this brings me to a difficulty which is infinitely more gluttonous but just as potent. The idea of going GF strikes terror into my heart. No more bread and butter, no more pasta? No more cookies, no more quiche, no more soup with a smidgeon of flour? Maybe for your average consumer this isn’t too intimidating. But I already spend roughly a third of my waking hours scouring ingredient labels for substances I’m allergic to (like the flavoring monosodium glutamate, in approximately 99.6% of the food on the market today) or absolutely cannot abide, like peppers, wasabi, cilantro, caraway or aspartame. This also includes avoiding almost all fruit in any form, tomato and tomato sauces, citric acid, all juices, all tea, all coffee, all soda and all alcohol, because of the IC. Upon scanning any restaurant menu, I usually find that about 80% of the dishes are off-limits.
The point is that I feel as if I can’t face any more dietary elimination. Yes, I know there are GF imitations for everything from muffins to crackers, but GF People bring them to the party and I’ve tasted them. Plus they seem to cost at least twice as much as regular items. My grocery budget couldn’t take it.
Then there’s the issue of the constantly evolving roster of food police no-no’s. Part of me fears that gluten is simply the food scare of the year, which will be proven baseless in time for some new culinary specter. How many times has the government “Food Pyramid” changed in the last decade? Can anyone make sense of its last two or three incarnations? A decade or two ago, fat was the ultimate enemy, and dieters gorged on pasta and bread. Even today, some of the most prominent “health food” options are non-fat yogurts and the like bursting with sugar.
Doctors used to warn against red meat, dairy and eggs. Now, we’re learning that these iron and vitamin-rich foods are nutritious in moderation: a healthy body needs protein and fat, and carbohydrates and sugar are the real enemies. In the last year, I’ve read some articles touting the health benefits of brightly colored vegetables and at least one advocating the consumption of pale ones. I’ve heard that peanuts are a great diet aid, and also that they’re terribly toxic. Coffee, chocolate, and red wine, once guilty indulgences, now have positive impacts on longevity and heart health. In relation to my IC, one author urged me to cut out all red meat in favor of a grain-based diet, while another, as you saw, warned against grains.
Jumping on the anti-gluten bandwagon would be a big commitment. I fear that the GF craze will be disproven and die down, like so many other dietary doctrines over the years. In the meantime, I’m getting a little sick of the GF doctrine – especially from those who claim they can cure my disease without any studies to back them up – even as I fear, deep down, that I have brought my health woes upon myself one bagel at a time.
I remember the first time I ever felt guilty about eating – I decided I was too fat when I was about seven years old, and have never looked back. Now, a new layer of guilt is developing every time I have a piece of whole wheat toast with my breakfast eggs. It’s already hard enough to stop myself from reaching for some orange juice, berries or tea in the morning – should I partake in the gluten-based shame as well?
I can’t face the latest grocery store gospel alone anymore. Will you please weigh in with your own (fact-based) opinion or experience?